“I don’t know what to say. I’m pretty shocked.”
Raffi Mercuri, campaign manager for the Right to Survive initiative, didn’t have much good news to share with the small crowd of supporters who gathered at the campaign’s north Denver offices on election night, May 7.
Minutes earlier, the first wave of results had been made public, quickly dashing any hopes that the Right to Survive campaign might pull off an unexpected victory. The first 90,000 ballots counted — half of the final total — showed Initiative 300 losing by a landslide, with 84 percent voting against it.
Organizers hadn’t been encouraged by the polling they’d seen, but no one had anticipated such a one-sided result, either, and the news came as a gut punch. Supporters wept and comforted one another. Mercuri, fighting back tears of his own, told campaign volunteers how proud he was of their efforts.
By the time the final, unofficial vote tally was published nearly 24 hours later, the margin of defeat had shrunk only slightly. Just under 19 percent of Denver voters cast a ballot for the measure, compared to 81 percent against.
It’s a disappointing result for Right to Survive organizers, but they’re used to disappointment. Led by advocacy groups like Denver Homeless Out Loud, the movement has fought for years to overturn the city’s urban camping ban, a law passed by Denver City Council in 2012 that bars people from sleeping or sheltering using tents, bedrolls or even blankets on public property such as parks and sidewalks.
Opponents of the camping ban say it criminalizes homelessness, and have tried five times to pass a bill at the state level, known as the Colorado Right to Rest Act, that would prohibit local governments from enforcing such measures. Under opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats, the bill has been withdrawn or killed in committee every time, and after yet another defeat in March 2018, organizers turned to voters. By October, they had collected nearly double the 4,726 signatures required to qualify for this year’s Denver ballot.
One initial poll showed the Right to Survive measure — which would have enshrined into city law “the right to rest and shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner in public spaces” — leading by a 2-1 margin. But things soon began to shift as a powerful, deep-pocketed opposition campaign put the initiative in its crosshairs.
The forces that lined up to oppose Initiative 300 are a who’s who of political and economic power in town.
Campaign finance reports show that contributors to Together Denver, the lead opposition group, included civic nonprofits like Visit Denver and the Downtown Denver Partnership; business and trade groups like Colorado Concern and the National Association of Realtors; corporations like Xcel Energy and Liberty Media; white-shoe law and lobbying firms Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and CRL Associates; and dozens of wealthy individual donors, including investor J. Landis Martin and brewing scion Peter Coors.
Incumbent mayor Michael Hancock and his top three challengers in the mayoral race all said they opposed the measure; artist and activist Kalyn Heffernan, in her outsider’s bid for mayor, was the only candidate to voice her support.
Overall, Together Denver raised more than $2.3 million to oppose Initiative 300, according to its latest campaign finance report. That’s more than the $2.1 million Hancock had raised for his re-election bid prior to last week’s election, and more than 25 times the $90,526 raised by the Right to Survive campaign committee.
The group’s fundraising haul allowed it to spend nearly $1 million on television advertising, $400,000 on canvassing and outreach, and $320,000 on digital ads and direct mail, disclosures show.
Flush with cash from some of the most powerful people and institutions in Denver, the No on 300 campaign blanketed the city with ads, mailers and yard signs bearing the slogan: “We Can Do Better!”
Which raises the question: Better how?
“They spread a message that this wasn’t the solution and that we can do better — so it’s time to do better,” Mercuri told Westword on election night. “They have unlimited resources, so we need to make sure that we publicly hold them accountable, and make sure that they’re putting resources behind it.”
Westword reached out to more than a dozen businesses and organizations that ranked among the top contributors to the No on 300 campaign, to ask how they planned to support efforts to end homelessness in Denver in the future. Three responded.
Asked how Denver can “Do Better,” representatives for Together Denver donors issued statements that touted past and present philanthropic efforts and suggested a renewed focus by civic leaders on issues of homelessness and housing following Initiative 300’s defeat — but offered few specifics on how things will change going forward.
On its website, Visit Denver, a nonprofit that promotes local tourism and is funded in part by the city’s lodging tax, says that over the years it’s given a total of $90,000 to Denver’s Road Home, the city agency in charge of homeless services. It was also the fourth-largest donor to Together Denver, contributing $150,000.
“Visit Denver is committed to our continued partnerships that support the city’s efforts focused on homeless services and solutions,” Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver, said in a statement. “We have and will continue to provide assistance for homeless programs like Denver’s Road Home and Caring 4 Denver, among others.”
“This campaign has reminded us that Denver is a compassionate community that cares deeply about both its people and its public places,” said Tami Door, president of the Downtown Denver Partnership, which contributed $200,000 to Together Denver. “We have long been deeply involved in supporting those experiencing homelessness in our city and we will continue to work in close partnership with the City and our partners in the community to expand upon services.”
The Colorado Association of Realtors, which contributed $25,000, issued a statement that read, in part: “The heightened sense of awareness, education, and urgency is there for our city leaders, community and business leaders and many others to come together and expand upon the pool of resources and creative solutions that will be required to address affordable housing and homelessness. We look forward to continuing our work and to helping be a part of long-term solutions.”
For its part, the No on 300 campaign praised the work already being done by the City of Denver through programs like the Denver Street Outreach Collaborative and its new affordable-housing fund. But it also acknowledged that there’s room for improvement.
“More could and should be done — including providing more shelters, making public bathrooms and showers more easily accessible, offering counseling services and job training and investing in affordable housing,” read a campaign mailer from Together Denver. “But Initiative 300 does none of that.”
Reeling from their heavy defeat, Right to Survive supporters are skeptical that the interests that bankrolled their opposition will support any meaningful change to the city’s efforts to end homelessness.
“They’re going to talk about how ‘Doing Better’ means donating money to shelters or services, or they’re going to start some new committee to do research or collaborate across different sectors,” predicts Terese Howard, an organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud. “That’s not doing better. That’s just throwing money at the status quo.”
At heart, Howard and other advocates don’t believe that the Together Denver campaign was motivated by genuine concern for people experiencing homelessness. The camping ban, they argue, is a tool that downtown businesses and other powerful interests use to sweep the problem under the rug — and as long as the problem is out of sight, out of mind, it won’t be adequately addressed. Mercuri scoffs when asked if he thinks the “We Can Do Better” slogan was sincere.
“No, of course I don’t,” he says. “That was a ploy to make people okay with voting against human rights.”
While down from the record levels of homelessness experienced during the Great Recession, more than 5,000 people in the seven-county Denver metro area are unhoused on any given night, according to annual point-in-time surveys conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. Many experts believe that such surveys are deeply flawed and the true number is far higher.
The fight over Initiative 300 was a disagreement about the short-term responses and solutions to the problem, and while it’s unlikely that the disagreement can be fully bridged, there may be room for compromise. Some, including mayoral candidate Jamie Giellis, who faces Hancock in a June 4 runoff, have voiced support for repealing the camping ban without going as far as the Right to Survive would have — perhaps with authorized, regulated camps or other measures.
“We do need to decriminalize these things that people need to do to live,” says Mercuri. “Now, if that means that, say, you can’t sleep overnight in parks indefinitely, or you have to keep your space clean — whatever it is, if we need to be more specific, that’s fine.”
“We wrote the initiative because those are all basic human rights that every person needs to survive,” says Howard. “We’re not there right now because of how much we’re up against. But one absolutely fundamental and critical step in protecting those rights is to repeal the camping ban.”
But while supporters and opponents of Initiative 300 may never agree on how best to ensure the safety and dignity of people who are unsheltered, the bigger question in the long run is how best to keep people off the streets in the first place.
“The Right to Survive is not the solution to homelessness,” says Howard. “We’ve never professed that it was the solution to homelessness; it’s a basic right and survival need. The goal of ‘Doing Better’ is one that we can all agree on.”
It’s campaign season, and promises of more effective homelessness policies abound. Shortly before May’s election, Hancock proposed the creation of a new Department of Housing and Homelessness to better coordinate the efforts of Denver’s Road Home and other city services, which a report from Denver Auditor Timothy O’Brien last month criticized as “fragmented and understaffed.”
One simple but effective strategy, advocates say, is for Denver to spend much more on services and supportive housing than it currently does. They’re rankled by the $2.3 million that powerful, wealthy donors spent to oppose Initiative 300 in a city where programs that help people experiencing homelessness often go underfunded.
Hancock’s 2019 budget touted a total of $14.7 million in spending on “homeless services and facilities,” but while the size of city budgets and unhoused populations varies from city to city, that figure lags significantly behind that of many other municipal governments. Seattle, for example, allocated over $90 million to address homelessness last year. San Francisco’s overall budget is about five times larger than Denver’s, but it spends nearly seventeen times as much — over $240 million — on homeless services.
Like so much else in Denver these days, the issue of homelessness is in many ways the story of who has benefited from the city’s recent economic prosperity and who has been left behind. It’s not lost on Right to Survive supporters that the donors to the No on 300 campaign included many of the same real estate and construction interests that have profited off the redevelopment boom that many blame for exacerbating the problems of affordability, displacement and homelessness in the first place.
“It’s incumbent upon the powerful of this city to make sure that people are taken care of, especially when they are footing the bill for the massive success that these people are experiencing in the private sector,” says Mercuri.
That economic boom has meant a tax windfall for the City and County of Denver; sales and property taxes have helped deliver nearly a billion dollars of new revenue into the city’s coffers, increasing its budget by nearly 70 percent. Some of that money has gone to a new affordable housing fund, and in April, Hancock announced another round of city homelessness initiatives, including $5 million for temporary housing vouchers and $10.7 million to expand daytime shelters that better connect people to services. But activists say it’s not nearly enough.
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“This is a systemic issue, a housing issue, not an individual issue,” Howard says. “We have the resources as a city to provide housing for everybody who needs it. We need to reprioritize where we’re spending our money and direct it toward low-income housing instead of housing for rich people.”
Mercuri says that he’d be encouraged if the same powerful interests that bankrolled Together Denver came together again to fund a new ballot initiative — one that would tax businesses and the rich to more adequately fund homeless services.
He doesn’t think that’s likely to happen. The coalition that came together behind the Right to Survive believes that bringing a permanent end to homelessness will require a fundamental shift in how Denverites think about housing, affordability, and what a rich, thriving city owes to its least fortunate residents.
“We need to guarantee that housing is a human right,” says Mercuri. “That no matter what situation you fall into — if you fall into addiction, if you lose your home, if the primary income earner in a family loses their job, they don’t have to fear the possibility of living on the streets. We as a city have to fund the services it would take for that to be a reality.”